2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup

Team USA Notebook: Kemba Walker absorbs new role of veteran leader

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Kemba Walker is still adjusting to the idea of being an “elder statesmen,” a tag he never really prepared himself for as he was grinding away through the first few years of his NBA career.

But he’s getting a huge dose of it now and for the foreseeable future. As one of the veteran leaders in camp as the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team prepares for the FIBA World Cup, he’s living that role every day. And he’s doing it alongside three of his younger USA teammates — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart — he’ll work with in Boston when the 2019-20 NBA season begins.

This opportunity to fine-tune their chemistry and build camaraderie ahead of next season is one of the benefits of their time together this summer. Walker said as much as Team USA wrapped up practice Tuesday night at the UCLA Health Training Center.

“They’re just some really good young dudes and I just enjoy being around them,” Walker said. “And the age difference is really crazy to me. J.T. is like 21 and J.B. is 22 and Marcus is 25. And I’m 29 and feeling like, wow, this is cool. It sounds crazy. I remember when I was 21 in this league. I was a rookie and just trying to figure it all out. And these guys are young vets already. Like I said, it’s crazy.”

And ideal if you are Celtics’ boss Danny Ainge, who attended Tuesday’s practice, or Celtics coach Brad Stevens. The bonds developed now will help forge a brotherhood that was clearly missing last season.

Chemistry issues sank the Celtics’ hopes of contending for a third straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals in what turned out to be Kyrie Irving and Al Horford’s final season in Boston.

Given all that the Celtics’ quartet is learning about each other this summer, chemistry shouldn’t be a problem. Walker praised his young teammates for their diligence and work ethic while marveling at their ability to pick up the nuances and changes that comprise FIBA World Cup play.

“Everybody comes here knowing they’ll have to sacrifice some of the things they are used to doing for the greater good and they get that,” Walker said. “And for me, having some experience and being one of the older guys here, it’s a great opportunity to show some leadership and also humble myself in this process. But the chance for these young guys to showcase their talents is really dope. I’m glad to be here with someone like [U.S. Coach Gregg Popovich] running it and to be a part of it, because normally these are guys I’m battling with every night and now we get a chance to work together. The sky is the limit for what they can do and I just love being a part of this stage of it all.”

Tatum, Brown and Smart have each gained insight into Walker’s game as well — in particular what it’s like to see the All-Star guard work every day.

“For me, I’ve noticed that Kemba can really play defense when he wants to do it,” Smart said and then laughed. “You know it’s tough, when you see how much energy he had to exert on the offensive end [in Charlotte], but he’s actually a really good defensive player, especially at his size. You find out that the little guys are usually more feisty and tenacious. But he can play defense and you didn’t really see that or notice that because he had so much of a load on him offensively that it was probably harder for him to do that.”

Smart agreed with Walker’s point about everyone here in camp having to play roles as opposed to focusing on what they might be used to on their respective NBA teams.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who on their respective teams are the man or whatever you want to call it,” Smart said. “They’re either the first, second or third option on their team and here they might not even be fourth or fifth. It takes a lot of humility to look yourself in the face and say, ‘okay, what does this team need from me?’ And be ready to do it. If it means stepping outside of what I do normally, that’s okay. That’s what we’re here for. And that’s what this [USA Basketball] environment brings out of all of us.”

Smart still on the mend

Smart was the only member of the team in sweats Tuesday night as he’s still dealing with the sore left calf that cost him the final three days of last week’s camp in Las Vegas.

He could return to the court by the end of the week. He said he hopes to be ready for Friday night’s exhibition game against Spain in Anaheim.

“I don’t know for sure when” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting it right.”

No return fire from Pop

Popovich isn’t interested in any verbal sparring ahead of the competition. He’s got more important things to worry about than responding to any shots fired from opposing coaches.

When asked for his thoughts on Serbian coach Aleksandar “Sasha” Djordjevic saying if his team were to face the U.S. team in China, “may God help them,” Pop kept didn’t bite.

“I don’t really pay attention to much, I’ve been doing this for too long,” Popovich said. “He’s a hell of a coach, he’s a competitor and he’s been a hero in Europe, you know, as a player. He was fantastic. And he has a program that goes way back with lots of success. And they do have a heck of a team. There’s no doubt about that. They are deep, they are talented and they are going to work their fannies off. And they want to win, just like we do or anybody else who is in the tournament. You know, people will talk, but that’s usually not something I respond to.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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